A Primer on College Essays

By Rajkamal Rao  

Essays are crucial to college admissions. Image Credit: Rao Advisors LLC

High school students already know that the most crucial subjective part of their college application is, without a doubt, the college essay.  

Why do colleges even need essays?  They already know a lot about you through your grades, honors courses, AP exams, and admission tests.

As you probably guessed, grades and admission test scores tend to bring you down to a number.  Students are human and bring with them compelling life stories that are not captured by these numbers.  

The college essay provides you, as a student, an opportunity to present a human side to college admissions officers. Members of your audience who will review your essays are experts in the field. Admissions officers with just 5 - 8 years of experience may have read over 10,000 student essays in their careers!

Composing essays takes practice. You should pay attention to the style of writing - it can't be informal, like an email you would write to your friend. Neither does it have to be formal, such as an academic research paper. It has to be somewhere in between, where you can and should liberally use the word "I."

For most essays, you should adopt the role of a storyteller.  The reader does not know you and wants to understand who you are. So oblige the reader. For some essays - such as "Why is an odd number odd?" - the storytelling approach may not work quite as well, but you can still try to inject your personality into the essay.

Depending upon the essay, the tone should express confidence, joy, or optimism. In some cases - such as a student describing a story in which he/she overcame trauma - such a tone would be inappropriate. I once had a client talk about how the sudden loss of her beloved father created chaos.

Two Types of Essays

Colleges generally require high school students to submit two types of essays.

The first is the essay required as part of the Common App or Coalition App or the Universal App - these are platforms used to apply to colleges.  The Common App, the most popular platform, lists seven “Personal essay writing prompts”, which are really seven essay questions.  You can pick one and answer it to a length of 650 words. The so-called "Personal Statement" and any one of the seven Common App essay prompts are one and the same. For most colleges, this is the only essay you will ever need.

But highly selective colleges will require you to submit additional “supplemental” essays of their choosing.  These colleges want to better understand who you are, what you want to be, and how you can express yourself. Check out our post about the three kinds of essays colleges typically ask you to write and our advice about how to tackle them.

Many institutions do not use the Common App. Starting the 2023 admit year, colleges in Texas have begun accepting the Common App but still require use of the ApplyTex Topic A essay. Public universities in California (UC Apply or Cal State Apply) or private schools like MIT have dedicated applications portals and essay requirements. Some amount of reuse is possible. For example, if you're constrained for time, a good trick is to reuse the ApplyTex essay as one of the seven prompts of the Common App essay or the generic essay prompt for the Coalition App.

Regardless of which essay you are writing, follow these three simple rules.
  1. Answer the essay question correctly.  Too many students read too much into the question and over-engineer their responses.

  2. Be yourself and be honest.  College admissions officers look at thousands of essays in great detail and can quickly tell a genuine essay from one that's fake. An admissions officer from Harvard, speaking at an event in Ft. Worth in May 2019, advised students to take the "cafeteria test." Suppose you left behind the draft of a college essay in the school cafeteria and you didn't have your name printed on the essay, could a friend read the essay, and immediately know that it was you who wrote it?  If the answer is yes, you passed the cafeteria test.

  3. Have your essay professionally reviewed by someone who is neutral - that is, someone who didn't raise you from birth!  It is well worth the investment.
Admission officers of several selective colleges often talk about what they expect, such as in this video clip. The College Board provides essay tips here.

What should you write about?

Winning essays are generally those written from the heart, show compassion and highlight your character. David Holmes, who has done important work to signal the importance of character attributes in college admissions, defines character "as nonacademic factors -- e.g., service to society, evidence of a strong work ethic, attributes such as resilience, perseverance, and caring for others."

Another clue about what colleges like to see is buried in the selection criteria of scholarship applications. The Jack Kent Cooke scholarship application is available from within the Common App. The program is one of America's largest initiatives to advance the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need. Four factors are evaluated before awarding up to $40,000 in grants. It is a safe bet to highlight one or more of these factors in your college essays.

  1. Exceptional academic ability and achievement: Strong academic record, academic awards and honors, GPA, college entrance exam scores, advanced courses, commitment to learning, and intellectual curiosity.

  2. Persistence: Determination and perseverance in the face of challenges, ability to set and remain focused on goals and to put in the effort needed to meet those goals in the face of obstacles.

  3. Leadership: Ability to organize and positively influence others in and out of school (family, religious community, sports, arts, etc.).

  4. Service to Others: Purposeful and meaningful commitment to others which may be evidenced by participation in volunteer/community service activities.

The New York Times generally publishes four college essays each year. Click here to review essays for the high school class of 2020.

Popular Essay Prompts

ApplyTex Topic A: Tell us your story. What unique opportunities or challenges have you experienced throughout your high school career that have shaped who you are today? [Standard required essay for UT Austin and Texas A&M].

ApplyTex Topic B: Most students have an identity, an interest, or a talent that defines them in an essential way. Tell us about yourself.

ApplyTex Topic C: You’ve got a ticket in your hand –Where will you go? What will you do? What will happen when you get there?

Common App
  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

How We Can Help

As described by the English Department at Brown University, good writing is made of key elements: Idea, Motive, Structure, Evidence, Explanation, Coherence, Implication, and Presence. Lack of one or more of these essential elements results in a poor essay.

In our experience as professional reviewers of student essays, we find several recurring patterns. Most students overestimate their ability to write and are unwilling to accept genuine criticism of their writing.
If you want to discuss your creative ideas about what to write, please book an appointment and we will be glad to give you pointers to help you build an outline.

Two-pass review process

Our structured essay review process is designed to get you to upload a very high-quality essay. Our two-pass review method - replicates the environment of a traditional college admissions team when two members independently review student essays - has helped students get into the most elite colleges.

On our team is Kyle Wang who has an undergraduate degree in English from Stanford and is pursuing a Master's degree at Stanford. Junah Jung, is pursuing her English undergraduate major at Stanford. Nikita Daga, is an undergraduate student at Duke. Mollie Ripple has an undergrad degree from Baylor and a Master's degree from UT Medical Branch.  Rajkamal Rao, our lead counselor, uses his years of experience as a columnist and 17-years of management consulting experience oversees review operations and edits each essay before final delivery to the client.
First-pass (Creative or Structural Review). When you submit your essay draft to us we will provide you with genuine feedback on your essay. Is the prose consistent? Are you duplicating ideas or being redundant (generally a major shortcoming)? Worse, are you contradicting yourself? Are the examples or context too narrow? Is the theme too broad?
We expect that when you receive our detailed comments on the essay, you will address each one of them, although you don't have to accept all of them. Your essay is, after all, your work!
Second-pass (Technical Review & Presentation). During the next pass, you will send us the revised essay for us to professionally edit and enhance. We do an end-to-end review of every word and punctuation, citing as our favorite 2018 story, the $5-million dollar comma. In 2021, an Australian court allowed a defamation suit to proceed because of a missing apostrophe.

As the last step during the second-pass, we use Grammarly Premium to check your essay for correctness, clarity, engagement, and delivery - and for the all-important plagiarism checks. We don't return your essay until we earn at least a 99/100 on the Grammarly score. At that point, your essay is complete. You would review it one last time and then upload it to your college application. If you make any changes to the essay, we ask that you return it to us for one last Grammarly check. We hate for your change to fail the plagiarism test or generate a silly grammar error after all the hard work!

Here is the "Before" essay of a student, the "After" essay following our review and edits, and an offer of admission the student received from Dartmouth, an Ivy League school. Our students have entered several selective colleges, including Princeton, Brown, CMU, Duke, Cornell, Penn, and Columbia.

We generally return reviewed essay versions in 48 hours or less. Please see our fees here .


Our essay reviews are billed to you at the same hourly rate as traditional counseling. How much time do we need to review/edit/enhance an essay?

That depends upon the quality of the initial draft. A rule of thumb is that it takes us 1 hour to produce a professional-grade essay of about 300 words (both passes included).

So, the Common App essay (650 words) and ApplyTex essay (700 words) each takes us a little over 2 hours. Luckily, you can reuse the ApplyTex Topic A essay verbatim to suit the Common App essay (Prompt #5 or Prompt #7). So, you're getting two essays for the price of one!

A UT Austin Short Answer essay (300 words) takes about 1 hour. For supplemental essays, it takes us 30-45 minutes each. For some tricky supplements, such as, "Why is an odd number odd?" it will take longer. On rare occasions, we will need to talk to you briefly to understand what you want to say - and this discussion will also be billed at the hourly rate.

How to send us essays for review

To send us resumes, essay drafts or other documents for review, please do the following:

1. Create the document in Google Docs (if it already isn’t). The name of the document should be in the full name - essay format, as in: John Doe_Common App #5. Your email address should NOT be a school email address. It should be a private email address, preferably Gmail.

2. Give rajkamal.rao@raoadvisors.com editor rights to the document.

3. Include at least one parent or guardian as an additional editor.

4. When sending essays, mention the prompt name (for example Common App #1) as the header and type out the entire prompt. Specify the word length. Then, type out your essay underneath.
5. When sending supplemental essays for a school, place them all in the same Google Docs document. Your three UT essays would be in the same document with the file name John Doe_UT Supplementals. List each prompt, the word length, and your essay underneath. Please do not send us bits and parts of a school's essays - that is, don't send us UT Austin #1 in one document and UT Austin #2 in another document a few days later. Wait to place all of them in the same document before sending.
6. When you are ready to share the document for review, select File-Email-Email collaborators in your Google document. In the comment box, indicate whether you want a first pass or second pass review done. Indicate additional notes if necessary. This will send an email with a link to all with whom the document is shared.

We’re unable to review Word documents or .pdfs.

Please contact us for more information.

A Note About Rao Advisors Premium Services
Our promise is to empower you with high-quality, ethical, and free advice via this website.  But parents and students often ask us if they can engage with us for individual counseling sessions.  We offer world-class SOP and essay reviewing services for a reasonable fee, starting at $99/hour.

Individual counseling is part of the Premium Offering of Rao Advisors.  Please contact us for more information.

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